by Candyce H. Stapen
Guests are greeted by a panoramic view of the rugged, rust-colored Sierra Estrella Mountains — part of the high Sonoran desert that many come to the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass to savor. From the wall-size glass window, you can spot the small break between the rocky slopes of the Estrellas and the nearby South Mountain. In the 1800’s, thousands of stagecoaches carrying hopefuls to California led their horses through this pass, cutting nearly 60 miles from their journey west. That explains the “pass” in the hotel’s name.
Even in that era, the land’s occupants — the Akimel O’othom, called the Pimas by the Spanish, and the Pee Posh tribes, known as the Maricopas — provided food, safe haven and water from the flowing Gila River to dusty, buckboard sore travelers. The tradition of hospitality continues with the resort, owned by the Pima and the Maricopa’s Gila River Indian Community and situated on the tribes’ 372,000-acre reservation. Starwood Hotels & Resorts manages the 500-room, adobe-colored resort, which opened in October 2002 and cost $170 million to build, not counting the land.
A stay comes with upscale comforts, puts you within an easy drive of Phoenix and offers you and your kids a greater understanding of the Native Americans who have inhabited this region for centuries.
Aspects of the Pima and Maricopa culture are woven into the resort. The domed center of the lobby is reminiscent of a traditional native roundhouse or Olas’ki. The colorful frieze that rings the base of the lobby’s dome depicts tribal members weaving baskets (a Pima specialty), fashioning pottery (a Maricopa specialty), hunting and carrying out other traditional tasks. Native American art graces the public areas, and storytellers engage winter guests with traditional tales. Year-round, a cultural concierge answers questions and leads complimentary tours of the lobby’s artifacts, which detail some of the tribes’ history. These initiatives, combined with such ecologically sensitive programs as recycling and energy-efficient lighting, create what the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass calls a “GeoGreen” property — one that combines cultural sustainability with environmental stewardship.
Pima native Ginger Sunbird Martin, the cultural concierge, told us that the tribes’ history is intimately connected to water rights. By 1887, the Gila River was dammed, and the tribes suffered many decades without adequate water. On December 10, 2004, President George W. Bush signed the Gila River Water Settlement Act, the culmination of what has been called one of the largest and longest running court cases — one that continued from 1887 to 2004. As a result, the tribes now control 52 percent of the water in Arizona. Because the Gila River is so important to the tribes, the resort created a 2.5-mile interpretive trail that edges a man-made stream symbolizing the Gila River. Fifty plaques along the path describe aspects of the tribes’ history and their use of the plants on the banks. A faux waterfall (somewhat tacky) gurgles on the lobby’s lower level.
It wouldn’t be the west without horses, and more than 1,500 wild stallions and mares still roam the reservation, kicking up whirlwinds of dust as they gallop across the open ranges. (That accounts for the other part of the hotel’s name.) The best way to catch sight of these icons is on a guided horseback ride arranged through the stable. Typically, when children check in, a member of the Clubhouse — the kids’ program — greets them in the lobby and gifts each youngster with a plush wild horse and an activity brochure.
Don’t confuse this Sheraton resort with the chain’s mid-level, serviceable-but-bland-and-boxy airport hotels. Ginger told us that the elders chose Sheraton to manage the property because the company was the only one that would deviate from its standard procedures to accommodate the ways of the tribe. It’s a winning arrangement that’s racked up accolades. In addition to the property’s Four Diamond/Four Star rating, the resort’s signature restaurant, Kai, is one of only 14 U.S. AAA Five Diamond- and Mobil Five Star-rated restaurants. Kai also ranks as Arizona’s only restaurant to win that rating — quite an achievement in a state that blooms with luxury resorts.
Our Editor Loves
- Storytelling, crafts and talks detail the culture of the Pima and Maricopa tribes
- 2,500-acre resort affords sweeping mountain and desert views
- Saddle up for rides in search of the reservation's 1,500 wild horses
- Horse Back Riding
- Children Programs
- Connecting Rooms
- Kids' Pool
- Kids' Theme Meals
- Onsite Dining
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The guestrooms offer a mix of Southwestern style and Native American touches in a pleasing blend of beige, brown, sand and other earth tones and provide comfortable furnishings for you and your kids can curl up on. A woven throw blanket -- designed by a tribal artist and featuring a Maricopa pot, an antelope and other images representing the tribes' culture -- adorns each bed. Dried cactus ribs decorate the doors and cornices in each room. Guest accommodations are housed in two wings. Those in the Pima section feature baskets and basket designs, while those in the Maricopa section have pottery and pottery designs. Sepia-toned photographs of tribal ancestors hang on the walls.
Even the standard rooms are a decent size; those with two double beds are 420 square feet, and those with king beds are 400 square feet. Each room has a patio or a balcony.
The 860-square-foot deluxe suites provide plenty of space. The living rooms have pull-out sofas, tables and their own televisions. The separate bedrooms also have their own televisions.
Cribs and rollaways are also available.
Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort is one of those places where immediately you feel relaxed when you walk in the door. The views are amazing! The pool and grounds will keep you entertained. The hotel has a beautiful scent of flowers lingering everywhere. Great location close to the casino.
We were at the resort for a conference, which coincided with our anniversary and birthday. Everyone at the hotel is very helpful and friendly. All of the food is great. Spa was outstanding. Rooms and grounds are clean. Pool is amazing. Ko'Sin is an awesome restaurant and we ate their twice (my husband even had the same dish, meatloaf, both times). Loved the Chicken Pot Pie, too. Cocktails are great at the bars. Only recommendation would be an airport shuttle.
Pools attract children, especially in the desert. At the Wild Horse Pass, four of them spread out on a patio area facing the mountains. Children can play in all but the adults-only pool. The highlight of the waterscape for kids is splashing down the twisting, 111-foot water slide. Since children and their families hang out at the pools, the kids' counselors show up there in the afternoon to involve children in watermelon-eating contests, water-balloon tosses and other activities. Lifeguards do not patrol the pools, but the counselors are CPR certified.
Kids Club and Family Activities
The Sheraton Adventure Club operates daily for ages 4 to 12 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Half-days run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations are required at least 24 hours in advance. If you cancel within 24 hours, you pay a 50 percent fee. Kids fashion rain sticks and other Native American crafts, race each other down the water slide, play Nintendo Wii and enjoy other activities.
The resort newsletter lists water balloon toss times and other complimentary children's activities. From Memorial Day to Labor Day and during Easter, Christmas and other holidays, the resort offers additional complimentary children's activities.
At the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, you and your children will have plenty of opportunities to play together. You can watch complimentary movies around the pool on Saturday evenings (Memorial Day to Labor Day), go on a Sunday scavenger hunt, take a wagon ride through the desert and, on Friday nights, enjoy complimentary S'mores and Songs, accompanied by a Native American flute player. Winter, when the animals hibernate, is the traditional time for tribal storytelling; listen to Native American tales while roasting s'mores.
On a stroll along the 2.5-mile Interpretive Trail that edges the man-made waterway symbolizing the Gila River, signs name the plants, labeling them in the languages of the Pima and Maricopa. It's a refreshing walk, but go only in the early morning, especially from April through October when temperatures rise quickly. Always bring plenty of water, and wear a hat since the path offers little shade.
Hit the trail on a guided horseback ride with the resort's Koli Equestrian Center, housed at a 1,000-acre facility. High in the saddle on paths away from the resort's buildings, you have the best chance of catching sight of the famous wild horses. Kids 6 and older can saddle up. You and your wranglers at least 13 years old can "get them doggies rollin' " on a cattle drive, usually held twice a month.
Keep humming that cow poke song because you'll hear it when you enter Rawhide, the re-created 1880's frontier town and long-time Arizona tourist attraction that has been transplanted to the reservation. The Old West sagas come to life with street theater shoot-outs, trick gun shows, stagecoach rides, gold panning and even two-step dance lessons. Although Rawhide rates as a definite eye-roller for 'tweens and teens, grade-schoolers tend to like the somewhat hokey but fun "Wild West," not to mention the souvenir ten-gallon hats. The hotel's boat can ferry you to Rawhide and back again.
Want to get your older teens' attention -- and maybe even their adulation? For teens who have had a driver's license for at least six months, book a lesson at the nearby Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. You and your teen are both likely to feel more confident after the new driver in the family learns accident avoidance and skid control at a one day course.
Ko'sin, the main restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with a southwestern flare. For lunch, try the sun-dried tomatillo and tortilla soup with chicken. Along with traditional hamburgers, the kitchen serves vegetarian burgers, as well as buffalo burgers. Kids may like Ko'sin's "signature sips," flavorful mixes of fruit juices. Grape Ape combines grape juice, lemonade and pineapple. Cherry Fizz is a blend of cherry juice and sweet and sour pineapple juices. Kids can choose from hamburgers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese from the children's menu.
If you're hungry but don't want to leave the pool area, Hanyo (which means "oasis") Grill sells burgers, fruit salad, chicken sandwiches and other light fare.
For early risers, Vasip, a take-away counter in the lower lobby with nearby tables, offers coffee, pastries and water from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., Monday to Friday, and 6:30 a.m. to noon, Saturday and Sunday. We wish the counter was open during the day for grab-and-go snacks.
Kai, the resort's signature restaurant, is remarkable. The decor is a sophisticated mix of urban sleek, softened by paintings that feature Native American cradleboards and desert scenes. As you might expect, Kai, which means "seed," is pricey. Kai's version of buffalo is one of the restaurant's highlights.
'Tweens and teens who are into food are going to want to dine there. Good news: You can enjoy Kai Cares, a three-course, prix-fixe dinner of salad, fry bread and grilled tenderloin of buffalo from the Cheyenne River Tribe. That makes it easier to indulge your older children.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
As soon as we arrived at the resort, the bellman tagged our suitcases, assuring us they would next appear in our room, which they did. Taking the "lug" out of "luggage" was a welcoming touch that we appreciated, especially after a long journey.
Do you want to dine at Kai but don't think the five-star cuisine will fit your 6-year-old's palate? No problem. Opt for the resort's Guilt Free Dining, available Fridays and Saturdays from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Counselors take the kids to Rawhide -- the on-property replica of a western town -- for wagon rides, gold panning, a visit to the petting zoo and dinner at the town's Steakhouse.
The Art of Smart Timing
High Season is November through February, low season is May through August, and shoulder season is March and April, as well as September and October.
The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass is 11 miles -- or about 15 minutes -- from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Valet parking is complimentary, a nice budget-stretcher.
For Mom and Dad
The resort labels the menu for the Aji Spa -- a 17,000-square-foot, Mobil Four Star rated facility -- as "the only authentic Native American spa menu in existence." Many of the treatments incorporate the Pima's and the Maricopa's use of indigenous ingredients and techniques. The Sacred Salt Wrap (Ongam Hobin), employs oil made from creosote, and some wraps and scrubs feature native herbs and local honey or mud. The Pima Medicine massage uses traditional techniques of "energy anatomy" for relaxation.
Like many Arizona resorts, this one offers golf. Play your way through 36 holes at the Devil's Claw and the Cattail, the resort's Whirlwind Golf Club's two courses.
If you're feeling lucky, try the casino. Modern cowboys who "ride" cars can book an introduction to racing course at the nearby Bob Bondurasnt School of High Performance Driving.